Can U.S. Aid Win the War in Pakistan?

U.S. officials admit that their aid has created little goodwill in Pakistan.

May 28, 2009, 12:39 PM

DADAR, Pakistan, May 28, 2009 — -- If you ask the man with the white beard behind the small store counter here, the one selling bowls of homemade ice cream to children eagerly waving their rupees in the midday sun, all the United States needs to do to reverse rampant anti-Americanism in Pakistan is provide a little milk.

It goes without saying that the $5,000 grant Badr-ul Islam received from the United States to buy refrigerators for his fledging dairy business is an infinitesimally small portion of the $11 billion in military and humanitarian aid the United States has given this country since 9/11.

And yet many U.S. officials admit their money, much of which has disappeared or been spent on the Pakistani military, has created little goodwill among average Pakistanis. Indeed, Pakistanis who describe themselves as pro-American do so only privately these days, and say they are shocked by the level of venom spewed toward the United States in private and in the media.

So the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) escorted an ABC News team into this beautiful mountain town to show off the other side of U.S. investment in Pakistan: about $200 million for the area hit by the devastating 2005 Kashmir earthquake, which killed 70,000 people. In total, USAID, which oversees most non-military foreign aid, has invested $3.4 billion to help develop Pakistan.

Here, among the lush hills and the bumpy roads and the buildings still lying in rubble, the United States hopes rebuilding schools, creating agriculture projects, assisting medical centers -- even giving grants for refrigerators -- can do more to win over locals than any amount of military aid can do. It hopes that its investments here help fill a vacuum of poor education and governance that militants in Pakistan often exploit.

It is a hope that the U.S. embassy in Islamabad also tried to deliver today, when it announced it would spend an additional $26.6 million to help those displaced by the ongoing war in the Northwest Frontier Province.

Pakistan launched that war against the Taliban more than a month ago in part because of U.S. pressure to crack down on fighters roaming freely a few hours from the capital. Pakistan's government has called it a war for the country's "existence," but the war has also created the country's largest humanitarian crisis in Pakistan in more than 60 years.

About 2.4 million people have fled their homes since late April, according to the United Nations, and many have little food or water and are at risk of disease in sprawling, sizzling tent camps. On a visit to one of those camps, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, was asked if the battle had been worth the suffering.

"It is certainly true that an ongoing government military operation contributed to this situation," she said. :But it is also crucial to remember the reasons for that operation. The alternative is living a life under fear and intimidation by extremists who would rule without justice or compassion. They have shown no mercy and no morality to the citizens. Flogging, beheading, and cold blooded murder has been their way of life. Children like those in this camp deserve better futures than those offered by terrorists."

It is those futures that critics of U.S. policy in Pakistan accuse the United States of failing to provide when it gave then president and Army Chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf billions of dollars to spend, largely at his discretion.

For lack of any other visible presence these days, most Pakistanis associate a single policy with the United States: CIA-sponsored drone attacks along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Those attacks have killed at least 10 of a continuously refilled list of 20 senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, U.S. officials say. But they have also caused civilian casualties and are like kryptonite for Pakistan's democratic government, pushing the story line that Pakistan is fighting the Taliban because it's the United States' war rather than its own.

As Qudratullah Khan, a farmer in the Kurram tribal agency, recently told a visiting cameraman during an anti-U.S. protest: "This is not against the Taliban," he said of the drone strikes. "They are killing our innocent children."

In Mansera, the people benefiting directly from U.S. assistance sing a very different song when it comes to the United States.

The Government Centennial Model High School in Dadar, one of the largest schools in the Mansera district, was mostly destroyed by the earthquake. Pictures from the day after the quake show a crumbled building, its roof fallen in on itself. One student was killed and more than a dozen injured, according to Mohammad Irfan, who was the school's principal during the earthquake.

Today, the school is full of shiny new buildings, one of which displays a large USAID plaque. Irfan said he is proud to have received U.S. help.

"We were destroyed; we were ruined at that time," he said of the days immediately after the earthquake. "Now, we feel very, very happy with America. We now feel long live America, long live USA, long live Pakistan."

U.S. officials point out that education is particularly important here, in Pakistan's volatile Northwest Frontier Province, where the majority of attacks against the security forces take place. The literacy rate in the Northwest has been estimated at about 50 percent, although that number is closer to 20 percent among women, according to the Ministry of Education.

One of the other priorities here has been health. Down the road from the high school, the Basic Health Unit at Koti Bali sees dozens of patients a day. It, too, was largely destroyed in the earthquake, and the adjacent building where some of the staff used to sleep still hasn't been fixed.

The United States helped invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in the facility, which is the only location to offer preventative care in an area of 25,000 people. The head doctor trains nurses to help educate a community where diarrhea can be a major killer and fewer than half of all children are immunized. During a recent visit, of the six people who walked through the front door, all were women, and five had recently given birth. They received free vaccines for their babies.

"The government does not have the capacity to give all the things required over here," said Dr. Javeria Swati, the health services technical advisor for Pride, the non-governmental organization that spends USAID's money on health in this area. "They are doing what they can to their extent, but they need support in that."

USAID's efforts in Pakistan has its critics. Greg Mortenson, a Nobel peace prize nominee who has spent much of the past 15 years of his life building schools in Kashmir and in eastern Afghanistan, criticizes the agency as bloated and "overstretched." He said he can build a school in Pakistan for a fraction of what USAID spends.

But U.S. officials defend their efforts and say there is a larger point: That even if some of their money is spent ineffectively, the public sees that they're trying, and that's what convinces them to support the United States.

For Badr-ul Islam, the dairy seller, it's as simple as this: The U.S. has directly affected his life for the better.

"The people who oppose America," he said, "they should see how they've helped me. And they will change their minds."

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